Political deal making was the order of the day as Gov. John Kitzhaber's "Grand Bargain" met with skepticism, confusion and criticism at the kickoff of his special session Monday.

Political deal making was the order of the day as Gov. John Kitzhaber's "Grand Bargain" met with skepticism, confusion and criticism at the kickoff of his special session Monday.

"The governor's looking for votes," said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland.

Kitzhaber has proposed a mix of tax increases on upper-income earners as well as reforms for the Public Employees Retirement System. The goal is to boost education spending throughout the state.

Also on the table is Senate Bill 633, which would give the state the authority to regulate genetically modified organisms. The bill allows an exception for Jackson County, whose voters will consider an ordinance in 2014 banning GMOs locally.

Buckley said it has been a struggle to find enough votes for a small-business tax break that is viewed as an incentive to woo Republican votes.

Skeptics worry the bill is too broadly written and would encompass attorneys or doctors. "The intent is to help mom-and-pop operations," Buckley said.

PERS reform proposals have been criticized for a variety of reasons.

"We're between a rock and a hard place," Buckley said. "Some people are saying we're not doing enough. Some people are saying we're doing too much."

The proposed PERS change calls for a multiyear cost-of-living freeze for high-income retirees but not low- or moderate-income retirees. The estimated long-term pension cost reduction could be $5 billion.

By late Monday, legislative leaders thought a bargain was in the offing.

"At first there was no deal, then a partial deal and now a deal again," Sen. Alan Bates said. "It's still a little bit up in the air."

The governor and various legislative leaders, including Bates, have held high-level meetings to work through the impasse on the Grand Bargain.

Bates said it has been particularly troublesome resolving issues over the revenue changes, which would raise taxes on upper-income earners while offering tax breaks to small businesses.

"It's a real hodgepodge," Bates said.

He said the changes being proposed create far-reaching policy issues that are important to the state financially, he said.

An equitable approach has been difficult to work out for the retirement system reform.

He said the idea is to restrict cost-of-living increases on high-income retirees but create a system that doesn't penalize low-income retirees, who receive in the $20,000 to $30,000 range.

Despite the obstacles, Bates said he expects the bills to have a first reading today unless talks break down.

The on-again, off-again Grand Bargain left many Republicans fuming and feeling sidelined.

"We have yet to do anything," said Rep. Sal Esquivel.

The Medford Republican said Kitzhaber has acted irresponsibly by calling for a special session without making sure he had enough political support.

"The problem I see here is he called a special session and didn't count noses," Esquivel said.

On Sunday night, the entire Grand Bargain had fallen apart, but Monday morning it was a different story, Esquivel said.

"It's like the ashes of the Phoenix," he said. "It's a bird again."

Esquivel said he has only a general idea of the bills that he might be considering, but hasn't seen a written proposal yet. Also, there is talk at the Capitol of amendments to the bills, which further adds to the confusion, Esquivel said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.